Saturday, April 3, 2010

How can policy advisors come to grips with complexity?

In this post I continue my discussion of the Australian Treasury’s wellbeing framework for policy advice. (The preceding discussion is here.)

The Treasury incorporates a range of considerations in its discussion of the complexity dimension of its wellbeing framework. The discussion is itself quite complex.

This section of the framework is headed: ‘Level of complexity that people are required to deal with’. This might be expected to lead to a discussion of the desirability of simple and transparent rules that are clearly defined (do not involve a large amount of administrative discretion) and which do not involve citizens and firms in incurring unnecessary legal fees and compliance costs to remain on the right side of the law. This aspect of complexity is covered, but much of the discussion involves somewhat deeper issues.

The discussion begins with a definition of complexity that does not actually clarify anything but does serve to make the point that policy decisions involve many interconnected considerations. The following paragraph discusses what the authors refer to as the conventional analysis of complexity that has focused on the economic impact of sets of rules. In that paragraph the authors suggest, among other things, that complexity ‘usually brings benefits both through a better targeting of rules and through the provision of greater certainty’. Benefits to whom? In my experience the complexity of government programs usually arises because of political pressure to make special provisions for particular groups. A paper by Ann Krueger and Roderick Duncan (NBER 4351), which is cited in the Treasury document, makes the important point that since a tendency for increasing complexity of controls is inherent in most efforts to regulate it should be taken into account in initial policy formulation.

The final paragraph of the section raises issues related to the ‘emergent properties’ of ‘complex adaptive systems’. The discussion takes place at such an abstract level, however, that I am not sure that anyone other than its author would know what it means. From my personal experience, when bureaucrats write like this they do so for a reason – for example, so that they can deny that they intended to convey a critical reader’s interpretation of their words, or so that they can claim to have covered points that they have actually chosen to omit. In view of this, rather than speculate about what the authors may have meant, I will present some points relating to the implications of complexity that I think the authors of the document should have incorporated explicitly (but more briefly than I have below).

First, in presenting policy advice it should not be presumed that political leaders will be capable of exerting top-down control to implement recommendations of their departmental advisors even if they, the political leaders, are not lacking in intestinal fortitude. When democratic political systems work well to promote ongoing policy improvements it is usually as a result of the development of widely-shared understandings that are often inherently fragile. One of the implications of this is that there may not be much point in proposing large scale reforms in a political environment that is receptive only to incremental change. Another implication is that there is an important role for public inquiries in providing forums in which the views of policy analysts may emerge as more widely-shared understandings - if those views can survive public scrutiny.

Second, it is important to understand the nature of problems before proposing solutions. This might be obvious to Treasury officers, but it is still worth emphasising in any public document discussing the implications of complexity for policy advice. Gary Banks, chairman of the Productivity Commission, has made the point as follows:

‘Half the battle is understanding the problem. Failure to do this properly is one of the most common causes of policy failure and poor regulation. Sometimes this is an understandable consequence of complex forces, but sometimes it seems to have more to do with a wish for government to take action regardless’ (‘Evidence-based policy making ...’ reprinted in ‘An Economy-wide view: speeches on structural reform’, 2010).

Elinor Ostrom has provided an excellent example of how poor understanding of problems can be a trap even for people who have some knowledge of economic theory:

‘Many textbooks on environmental policy present ... conventional theory of an open-access common-pool resource as the only theory needed for making effective policies ... . Massive deforestation in tropical countries and the collapse of multiple ocean fisheries are cited by many policy analysts and public officials as sufficient evidence to confirm the general validity of the theory. ... Policy analysts tend to distrust local citizens to create effective forms of governance. Consequently, they assume that multiplicities of self-organized regimes ... are by their very nature disorderly and ineffective. Order is presumed to result from central direction. ... These common-sense assumptions, however, lead to proposals to improve the operation of political systems that have the opposite effect. By removing decisions about the way to innovate, adapt, and coordinate efforts from those who are directly affected, these policy reforms have created institutions that are less able to respond to the problems for which they were created’ (‘Policy analysis in the future of good societies’, The Good Society, 11.1, 2002).

Elinor Ostrom observed that in many countries where governments have taken control of common-pool resources from local users the governments concerned have lacked the funds and personnel required to monitor these resources effectively. As a result many governments have exacerbated the resource management problems that they were trying to guard against.

Finally, in my view any discussion of the implications of complexity for policy advice that does not incorporate a reference to Friedrich Hayek’s insights about the dispersion of knowledge is deficient. Those insights seem to me to be just as relevant to explaining current problems in public provision of education and health services in Australia as to explaining the failure of economic planning in the former Soviet Union. Hayek’s insights about the implications of dispersed knowledge are particularly relevant to considering proposed public investments in infrastructure (such as the proposed broadband rollout). For all I know, the authors of Treasury’s wellbeing framework may have had good reasons to neglect mentioning Hayek’s insights. Nevertheless, I will attempt to compensate in a small way for their neglect by quoting a short passage from Hayek’s seminal article on the subject:

‘In ordinary language we describe by the word “planning” the complex of interrelated decisions about the allocation of our available resources. All economic activity is in this sense planning; and in any society in which many people collaborate, this planning, whoever does it, will have to be based on knowledge which, in the first instance, is not given to the planner but to someone else, which somehow will have to be conveyed to the planner. The various ways in which the knowledge on which people base their plans is communicated to them is the crucial problem for any theory explaining the economic process. And the problem of what is the best way of utilizing knowledge initially dispersed among all the people is at least one of the main problems of economic policy – or of designing an efficient economic system’ (‘The use of knowledge in society’, American Economic Review, 1945).

Summing up, I am obviously not quite as impressed with the Australian Treasury’s wellbeing framework for provision of policy advice as are senior Treasury officials. But I’m not well placed to judge the overall effect it has had on the quality of advice they offer. It is pleasing that the Treasury has been thinking broadly about the concept of wellbeing and has published a framework that it apparently finds useful for provision of policy advice.

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